The Gown is not the Body

Knowing another language means having a second soul
– Charlemagne (742-814 C.E.) –
“The limits of my language are the limits of my world. But within my language world my being is this world”.
– Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) –

As we all know, language has a double function: it is a communicative tool and it helps to define our world. But the relativistic linguistic school of last century hypothesized that language goes beyond these functions and theorized that thought is influenced by the language in which it is expressed. Or, in other words, that each language builds a mental universe in its own right.

One hundred years later, a group of linguists headed by Lara Boroditsky , has revived this hypothesis and reached the conclusion that to be able to speak a second language is more or less equivalent as having another self. If this were true, when speaking another language this cognitive process would not be a simple translation of our thoughts from our mother tongue but the result of an independent thought expressed by our own “second soul”.

Languages may or may not disguise thoughts, but can we infer from the outline of the gown the shape of the body? Since we are aware that two languages cannot be the same, does this imply that the person also thinks differently, according to the language she/he speaks? Or that a person who can speak two or more languages also can think in two or more different ways?

If this were true, it would be as if, depending on the gown you are wearing, tight or loose, the shape of your body would change. Perhaps, from the perspective of a faraway onlooker, but probably not to a careful observer or, in other words, once the garment has been taken off.

Neuro-linguists have tried to pursue this research hypothesis in three cognitive/linguistic areas: gender, colours and orientation.

The best we can say about the origin of words is that they came into existence by convention, arbitrarily, and agreed upon by its repeated use. Grammar, whether innate or acquired, is an imperfect set of rules that reflects the way thought is expressed. Is it possible that this set of rules affects the way our thoughts are thought? Let’s take the example of a 3-gender-language, German for instance, with its three genders: neuter, feminine and masculine. According to a group of neuro-linguists, when an English-born-speaker speaks German, she/he would associate a certain category of adjectives depending on the gender of the noun. For instance, since the word bridge (Die Brücke in German) is feminine, this speaker would associate to it feminine images (such as slim, fragile, bond, or grace). (It would be of further interest to explore what is feminine in German in its own right!). On another example, in Spanish, since ‘El Puente’ is of a masculine gender, it would bring to mind masculine images such as strong, robust, and solid even to German minds when they utter the word bridge in Spanish, shadowing the original feminine image of their mother tongue.

This is a more complex case. For one moment we have to exclude the influence of angle and intensity of light (depending on the latitude), eyesight and light perception and purely consider it from a linguistic point of view. In Korean, for instance, exist several standard expressions for white, some of them without exact equivalent in any other language. A bit like the several expressions Inuit people use to define snow according to their location, quality and age of the snow. Or again, in Japanese, the ‘go’ colour of traffic lights is called 青い (aoi, blue), as colours where divided between cold (blue/green) and warm (yellow/red) since ancient times.

We tend to forget that we are not very accurate either when in western languages we call ‘white wine’ the liquid of fermented grape, which is fundamentally of straw-yellow shade. Still, our use of words, however imperfect it may be, does not alter our perception of colours. Or are we unable to distinguish differences in hues just because of lack of words or our inappropriate use of adjectives?

The third cognitive category used in determining whether and by how much the language we speak influences our thought is orientation. The Guugu Yimithirr speak a language called Gangurru (from which Kangaroo), an Australian aboriginal community who does not define a position referring to themselves (as we do in western languages) but to a coordinate reference system (like North, South, East and West). In a symmetrical-specular experiment, when coordinates are your orientation tool kit, the East one time is on your right and one time is on your left, whereas when you describe a location having yourself as the point of reference, one time a given location is on our left and the next time also. Would these two different orientation systems really lead us to two different Weltanschauungen?

In its most extreme form, this hypothesis (a.k.a. Sapir-Whorf) is that the language you speak influences your thought, not only through the definition of things but also through syntax and phrase structure. Ad absurdum, this scholarly hypothesis could be the result of the language these linguists speak (sic). In other words, if this hypothesis were true, when we speak in German about gender, in Japanese about colours and in Gangurru about orientation, how to explain the fact that we remain fundamentally immune from the language biases predicted by linguists when speaking about gender, colours and orientation? (admittedly, most of us do not speak Gangurru).

The hard facts of science have shown that in the above three areas in which the influence of languages were tested, none yielded any conclusive result, even considering a fourth area, numbers. The best-known case is the Pirahã, a language spoken by a Brazilian tribe that contains only words for one and two. These people would be unable to reliably tell the difference between four and five objects placed in a row in the same configuration. However, in the words of Daniel Everett, one of the leading researchers on this language:

“A total lack of exact quantity language did not prevent the Pirahã from accurately performing a task which relied on the exact numerical equivalence of large sets. This evidence argues against the strong Sapir- Whorfian claim that language for number creates the concept of exact quantity”.

Another notable researcher on the nature of humans, Edward O. Wilson, has, in his works, convincingly proved that people speaking languages void of words for certain colours or numbers were nonetheless able to recognize and to match colour or exact quantities of objects.

Paul Ekmann, in his studies on facial expressions, was able to demonstrate the universality of human expressions, regardless of the language spoken, by showing 17 pictures with different facial expressions to people as diverse as Samoans, Caucasians and Africans, who invariably correctly identified which expression referred to which emotion, even when their native language lacked the appropriate words or strictly defining terms.

As the poet Samuel Johnson once observed, languages seems to be a mere convention or a dress of thoughts. And all of this academic quibble would have remained confined in some obscure university department if it had not been seriously picked up by some economists.

Economics, like linguistics, cannot be considered an exact science in the sense of being predictive, but rather defined as a descriptive discipline. Unlike mathematicians, chemists, and physicians, linguists (like economists) deal with a field which we all live within and use it daily, giving us a false sense of familiarity. So much so that we feel entitled to say something about it and little matters if our arguments are not sustained by evidence.

Like linguistics, economics lacks the possibility to verify theories against counterfactual evidence or, in Popperian terms, it is not falsifiable. They both share the common trait of non-replicability of the experiment (or only under very narrow circumstances, with little general validity) and bear the sin of the researcher influencing the one-time experiment, although techniques such as RNM give the illusion of producing objective and certain data.

Economists keep on making failures on predicting the next boom or bust, the next level of inflation or what will be the consequences of any given economic decision. Over time, we should have become humbler, less arrogant and have accepted the fact that economy does not, and probably will never, attain the status of science, at least in the same sense as hard sciences do. Axel Leonjufhwud, one of the few economists that exerted some healthy self-criticism, in one of his papers, “Life among the Econ” published in 1973, warned us from the ‘Modl’  (in original) and their uselessness ‘however well crafted’. He points out that when economists  want to prove what they are looking for, they bend reality to their purpose and interpret findings to their benefit.

Peter Medawar  in his “The limits of Science” explained that the most important weakness in forecasting is the reason why economics is and will remain a mere discipline. Unfortunately, most economists not only have not noticed it yet, but still maintain the hubris of explaining to others how the world runs and of making predictions about its future. Framed around equations, based on models, these papers written by the cast of the Econ are predominant and overwhelming in quantity, hardly in quality.

On those rare occasion when a scholar puts models to a fact-based-testing, and, as it often happens, the findings contradict the model’s predictions, the holy caste of the Econ frame and segregate the evidence into a new model hastily named ‘paradox’  (in the economic literature we have counted not less than 34 paradoxes contradicting theoretical models).

In every hard science the theoretical models proven to be either false or irrelevant are thrown in the dustbin and forgotten, but not in economics. It is as if Popper’s lesson had never been learnt and Newton’s laws were still used to study Quantum Physics. The mathematical-deductive-mechanistic line of thought adopted in economics has too often failed to provide tools to understand the economic reality and continues to mould the mindset of legions of students into abstract sophistry, mainly disconnected with reality (see “Econocracy” by Joe Earle, Cahal Moran and Zach Ward-Perkins).

The belief in econometric models is relentlessly pushing the economic world towards the abyss of risky speculative adventures. The destruction of wealth, environment, savings, and lives in the millions caused by the custodians of the accepted and unquestioned ‘economic truth’, is still firmly anchored on the three sacred pillars of: Individualism, Optimization and Equilibrium. None of them has ever taken shape in reality, in the predicted form.

The praiseworthy attempt to free economy from its own narrow and self-imposed bounds has led some notable scholars to look for other interpretative models. Behavioural researches have given us some important insights in the irrationality of human behaviour, such as Dan Ariel or Daniel Kahneman. Others as Georgescu-Rogen and René Passet have taken inspiration from Biology.
Following the seductive but unverifiable idea that the language you speak determines what you think, linguistic economists like Keith Chen have tried to explain our propensity to save by the use of a language model.

Following a distinction made Swedish linguist, Professor Östen Dahl in the year 2000, linguists make a distinction between futureless and futured language. The hypothesis is that if you speak a futureless language you tend to be a profligate person. If you speak  a futured language you would be a thrifty person. A futureless language is a language like Chinese, void of the future tense (at least in a western language sense); a futured language instead is a language which forms the future tense by auxiliaries and suffixes, like Slavic ones; or by inflections, as in neo-Latin languages. According to this interpretation, this would be a sufficient reason to explain the different propensities to save.

How would then a speaker of a futureless language convey the idea of ‘I will go’ or ‘I am going to go’? Let’s not be fooled. The body of the thoughts is still there, only the gown is different: ‘in one hour’, ‘tomorrow’, ‘in the future’, etc. are all expression used by futureless languages to indicate the future. Only the set of rules of these languages works differently from western grammar rules. (Besides, Chinese does have auxiliaries to indicate something imminent or very likely: 要yao, want; 会 hui, will; or, in the written language, particles to mark the future tense即ji, 将jiang).

We have already shown how the effect of a language on our thoughts is difficult to demonstrate, even without considering the impossibility in determining the line of division between futureless and futured among the currently 7000 spoken. But even accepting for the sake of the discussion that a distinction between futureless and futured languages could be made, how would this hypothesis withstand reality?

Here below two charts taken from one of the studies on the hypothesized language-saving connection:

Above, the saving rates for 35 countries, from Luxembourg with more than 40% to Greece with just 10% of the GDP.

If we look at the data over a span of 25 years (1985-2010), UK and Italy have a gap of more than 8% points. Despite this difference in saving rates, not only both languages are futured (in the sense expressed previously) but they are also linguistically very near. According to the Cambridge Encyclopaedia of language (p. 375, 1980 ed.), they have an inter-lingual distance based on pronunciation, spelling, orthography, grammar and vocabulary which is the closest (in religious terms is similar to the proximity between the Anglican and the Roman Church), followed by Spanish, German, French and Russian. Why do people speaking a language falling in the same linguistic category (in this case futured) would display different saving patterns? Or, just to take an even more striking example, why would three linguistically identical countries like Ireland, Australia and UK have more than 10% points difference in their saving rates?

One among many contradictory points which this theory does not explain is that in the previous 30 years, and not considered in the above graphs, from 1955 to 1985, Italians (speaking a futured language) had attained saving level comparable to Japanese, speakers of a futureless language. Why do people speaking languages falling in two different linguistic categories (futureless and futured) would then display similar saving patterns?

In his General Theory (1936), John Maynard Keynes had already explained the psychological motives, the social mores and the economic conditions conducive to the prevailing saving rates.
Will our new generation of economists call Keynes’s model ‘the saving paradox’?